Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, July 20, 2012 at 10:14 PM
Last week’s look at the Mid-American Conference was notable for the stability you saw at the head coach and quarterback positions. There are a few teams in the MAC who could take a step forward this year and make some headlines in September. As our summer series of college football conference previews continues today in the East Division of Conference USA, we’re about to see a dramatic turnaround!
There are new head coaches at three of the six universities in CUSA-East. The only quarterbacks returning with significant experience were relative non-entities on bad teams. Only ONE team returns its head coach and starting quarterback (Marshall). And, given the tough schedules these teams face right off the bat in terms of major college superpowers…things are in danger of getting very ugly very quickly.
CONFERENCE USA EAST
Athlon Ranking: 66th
2011 Total Offense: 40th
2011 Total Defense: 9th
Strength: Rush Defense (16th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (55th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: George O’Leary
Notebook: The Knights fell off the map last year with a 5-7 record marred by a 3-5 mark in league play. This is supposed to be a perennial power. And, the media is assuming they’ll return to prior form this season mostly out of respect for past achievements. We don’t see a winning season as an automatic given the low number of returning starters. Yes, quarterback Blake Bartles did come in late last year and put some points on the board. Against soft defenses! The Knights lost three of their last four games in ’11, and five of their last seven. We respect O’Leary and this defense. If we see good performances against Ohio State and Missouri in September, then we’ll think about getting on the bandwagon. We understand why many are assuming things will be okay. Last year’s collapse was a shocker though…which means you have to make Central Florida earn any respect you give them this year.
Athlon Ranking: 78th
2011 Total Offense: 50th
2011 Total Defense: 56th
Strength: Pass Offense (20th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (105th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Ruffin McNeil
Notebook: With the fade out of Central Florida, this is the team that should have jumped up and won the East last year. But, the Pirates could only manage a 4-4 league record even with potent quarterback Dominique Davis putting up big numbers. He didn’t put up big enough numbers in November when the team dropped three of its last four. We do respect that McNeil made major strides on the defensive side of the ball last year. They had been a laughingstock prior to that. But…they still ranked 97th in scoring defense even with that 56th ranking in yardage. They’re not stingy when it comes to keeping people out of the end zone. We’re not optimistic about a big season given the quarterback situation.
Athlon Ranking: 82nd
2011 Total Offense: 17th
2011 Total Defense: 29th
Strength: Rush Offense (20th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (62nd)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Ellis Johnson
Notebook: It was Southern Miss who surged from the pack to win the East last year…before absolutely STUNNING Houston in the CUSA championship game 49-28. The Eagles didn’t suffer a letdown either, as they went to Hawaii and beat Nevada in a bowl. Unfortunately, the quarterback who led that 12-2 campaign is gone. And, head coach Larry Fedora was hired away by North Carolina. So, new coach AND new quarterback for the defending champs! Somebody’s going to have to win this division in ’12. And, Central Florida is sitting at the top of projections by default because of their head coach and at least some snaps on the resume of a kid quarterback. Should East Carolina or Southern Miss have a new QB that can get some points on the board, they’ll be in position to do some damage. It’s a preseason of question marks for the teams who matter most.
Athlon Ranking: 83rd
2011 Total Offense: 102nd
2011 Total Defense: 78th
Strength: Rush Defense (58th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (96th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Doc Holliday
Notebook: This is it…the one team that returns the same head coach and same starting quarterback from last season. And, that was a bowl season for the Thundering Herd, who beat Florida International 20-10 in the Beef O’Brady Bowl. Hey…5-3 in conference play and 7-6 after the bowl…that’s at least a decent launch point for a potential run at the division crown. Experience matters in this sport, particularly in the mid majors. We’ll be watching the season opener at West Virginia closely, as well as a September 15th home game against an Ohio team that may be best in the MAC. The most important CUSA games aren’t until late October (at Southern Miss, vs. Central Florida) and then in the season finale (at East Carolina). Who’s to say Marshall can’t take the division? For now, it’s safe to say that no team projected fourth in its division anywhere in the sport has as good a chance as Marshall for stealing a title.
Athlon Ranking: 106th
2011 Total Offense: 81st
2011 Total Defense: 114th
Strength: Pass Offense (60th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (114th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Garrick McGee
Notebook: UAB is one of many teams this year talking up a new fast-break style of offense in the offseason. That’s supposedly the panacea that’s going to make 25 teams better. More likely, most will just end up playing in higher scoring losses The Blazers do have an experienced quarterback in Jonathan Perry in the fold. That’s and seven returning offensive starters will put this team in position to score points. The defense is likely to be a disaster though…which means you should be thinking “Overs” on total bets in Las Vegas first and foremost.
Athlon Ranking: 115th
2011 Total Offense: 116th
2011 Total Defense: 117th
Strength: Pass Offense (85th)
Weakness: (Pass Defense (120th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Justin Fuente
Notebook: Wow…what a mess this is going to be. You have a new head coach in Fuente, who was the offensive coordinator at TCU. We expect that to mean more toughness and physicality because you can’t wear purple with that kind of mindset rubbing off on you. But, it’s easier to WIN with toughness and physicality when you’ve recruited a bunch of Texas athletes to play in a league that doesn’t have other Texas teams (as was the case with TCU before their recent move to the Big 12). Maybe Fuente is destined to impress. Things were so bad here though that we’re likely a few years away from seeing meaningful improvement.
That wraps up our look at the CUSA East. We’ll be back Sunday to talk about the West, where early favorites Houston and Tulsa are ALSO dealing with the loss of their quarterbacks. What a volatile conference this year! Remember that we’re focusing on mid-majors on Saturdays and Sundays through the month of July (check the archives for the WAC, Sun Belt, MAC East, and MAC West). We’ll focus on the majors in August as we countdown to the start of the regular season.
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Vegas oddsmakers are going to have significant troubles in Conference USA this season. That much is crystal clear already. JIM HURLEY has a few GAME OF THE YEAR possibilities already circled! NETWORK isn’t just weeks ahead of the curve…we’re MONTHS ahead! And, YOU should be thinking the same way in terms of enjoying of our early bird prices. SO, TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS TODAY!